2016-06-30
Reprinted from "The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith" with permission from Free Press.

"So . thus it is, that natural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell," thundered America's most famous theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in 1741. "They have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell." For Edwards, God is great, humans are meek, and our only recourse is to accept the arbitrariness of his inscrutable grace.

Much ink has been spilled about whether "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is typical of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. There is no doubt, however, that Edwards, even when he speaks in far more rapturous language about the wonders of the divine, paints a picture of religious believers as a people apart-their eyes focused not on the mundane world around them but on the ultimate judgment that awaits them. From his day to ours, that image has shaped the ways in which we argue over faith. Fed up with the sinful character of American life, evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and other adherents to strong forms of religious faith have withdrawn from the dominant society, choosing to live in subcommunities of their own, to send their children to schools entrusted to teach the truth of their tradition, and to vote for candidates pledged to uphold and support their values. So visible are they, so strong do their convictions appear to be, and (especially in recent years) so palpable has been their influence over public policy that the spirit of Jonathan Edwards, or others like him, seems very much alive in the land.

If strong religious believers view secular society as the enemy, at best to be converted and at worst to be ignored, liberal and secular Americans are only too happy to agree that the faithful are indeed a breed apart. Deeply entrenched religious truths, they routinely insist, are little more than dogmas reiterated without examination and self-criticism. When believers refuse to engage the culture, their opponents dismiss them as fanatics, frustrated people rendered insecure by the dilemmas and opportunities of modernity. When they do mix with everyone else, especially by trying to demonstrate the wonders of their faith, they are called sectarian, their efforts at witnessing requiring constitutional restraints designed to protect the privacy and dignity of their targets. Yes, Jonathan Edwards remains alive and well in America, skeptics of religion are likely to conclude, but that is cause for concern, not celebration. Like Edwards himself, who certainly had his authoritarian side, strong believers, in the skeptics' view, can easily turn into petty tyrants, invoking divine authority to limit the freedom of those they fear.

The American people, it would seem, cannot make up their minds whether religious fervor is essential for salvation or incompatible with the principles of modern liberal democracy. But what if religious belief has little in common with the images conveyed by Jonathan Edwards? American religion has never existed in practice they way it is supposed to exist in theory. Democratic in their political instincts, geographically and economically mobile, attracted to popular culture more than to the written word, Americans from the earliest time have shaped religion to account for their personal needs; even Edwards was ridden out of his pulpit by worshippers fed up with his pious sermonizing. Always in a state of transition, faith in the United States, especially in the last half century or so, has been further transformed with dazzling speed. Tracing the history of Christian thought from the New Testament to the twentieth century, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr documented the many ways in which Christ could become a transformer of culture. But in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture-and American culture has triumphed.

Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer; if they were singing the famous gospel hymn today, they would say that the old-time religion is no longer good enough for them. Talk of hell, damnation, and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy. Gone are the arguments over doctrine and theology; if most believers cannot for the life of them recall what makes Luther different from Calvin, there is no need for the disputation and schism in which those reformers, as well as other religious leaders through the centuries, engaged. More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem. Traditional forms of worship, from reliance on organ music to the mysteries of the liturgy, have given way to audience participation and contemporary tastes. Some believers are anxious to witness their faith to others, but the tend to avoid methods which would make them seem unfriendly or invasive. If Jonathan Edwards were alive and well, he would likely be appalled; for from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.

The message of this book is that religion in the United States is being transformed in radically new directions. This conclusion is based on time spent among the faithful of many varieties, as well as engagement with the writings of ethnographers who have studied religion as it is lived by people in real life. So diverse are American religions, however, that I have not been able to discuss each and every one of them; the reader will not find much in this book dealing with Eastern Orthodox Christians, Hindus or many other faiths that certainly do deserve mention. Still, enough religions have been examined by sufficient numbers of social scientists to establish one conclusion: The most exotic religion in the United States is also the most familiar, as strikingly similar to the society in which it flourishes as it is distant from the religion we once knew. It is time for Americans to stop discussion a religion that no longer exists and to concentrate their attention on the one that flourishes all around them.

When we begin to recognize religion as it actually is, we will, I believe, be less likely to see ourselves as divided into implacable camps. Here is my advice to those who view people on the other side of the faith divide as their enemy.

To people of faith, I say this: You have shaped American culture far too much to insist that you remain countercultural. You do not want to admit the extent to which your religion has accommodated itself to modern life in the United States for fear that this would somehow detract from your piety. But is it really awful to have moved closer to the culture around you? You could take umbrage at the descriptions I will offer in this book of the ways in which you have succumbed to the individualism, and even on occasion the narcissism, of American life. But I would urge you instead to take pride in your flexibility and adaptability. Like everyone else in the United States, you innovate and originate. You want your institutions to be responsive to your needs. You seek faiths that are authentic and alive. Sometimes you probably do go too far in the alacrity with which you borrow from American culture, and on those occasion you may-and probably should-have second thoughts. But there is nothing in the transformation of American religions in which you have been such active participants that ought to cause bitter anguish and apocalyptic rejection.

To all those who worry about faith's potential fanaticism, I also have some words: We are all mainstream now.

Ordinary people who want nothing more than to serve their God and to be modern, American, and full participants in their society have more in common with you than you realize. Because they do, the time has come for you to stop using the faithful as targets to promote and understanding of religion's role in public life that discriminates against those who make beliefs central to the way they live. Their views may be different from yours on abortion or prayer in school, but we expect people in a democracy to have different views on major questions of public policy. As modern Americans with distinctly tolerant sensibilities, you pride yourselves on your willingness to change, yet religious believers, even the most conservative among them, have adopted themselves to modern society far more than you have changed your views about what they really are. You have made the whole country more sensitive to the inequalities of race and gender. Now it is time to extend the same sympathy to those who are different in the sincerity of their belief.

Religions can be astonishingly different, while human beings can be surprisingly the same. Study theology, and one comes away impressed by differences. Study real people, and one is more likely to notice the similarities, not only among people of different faiths but also between those for whom religion matters greatly and those for whom it matters not at all. Believers in the United States are neither saviors nor sectarians. Once we know more about them, we will, or so I hope, be less likely to fear either the imminent establishment of a theocracy or the day in which God punishes us for our sins.

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